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close this bookBiotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture (GRAIN, 1991)
close this folderThe original biotechnologist
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentDiversity for production
View the documentMultiple cropping, multiple benefits
View the documentBiotechnology for the people
View the documentPromoting people's participation

Biotechnology for the people

If one looks at some of the literature on how indigenous Third World farmers have developed their agriculture, or if one simply walks around in one of their tiny and untidy-looking plots, the general feeling is of awe and amazement. The complexity, interdependence, and high level of sophistication of many farming systems deserves respect indeed. When scanning through journals and scientific papers reporting the latest breakthroughs in the new biotechnologies, the feeling is similar. Still, something does not match up in those two experiences. The original and the new biotechnologists seem to use a different type of genius. The first one is based on a broad and holistic approach to a specific agronomic and socio-economic situation. The latter tends to look for universal solutions deep down at the molecular level, sometimes coming up with breathtaking examples of engineering capabilities. One wonders whether those two approaches are compatible and to what extent one could supplement and strengthen the other.

That the technology from the original biotechnologist helps the new biotechnologist is beyond doubt. Many of the two million or so seed samples now stored in gene banks worldwide originate from the fields of Third World farmers. As pointed out earlier, this forms the precious raw material for the new biotechnologist. As well, scientific missions in search of landraces or wild material also collect the knowledge of indigenous people about them. Perfect South-North technology transfer, and for free!

The question to what extent the new biotechnologies can strengthen indigenous farming systems is far more complex. First there is the problem, stressed throughout this book, that this new set of powerful technologies is predominantly developed in and for industrialized countries and is rapidly becoming the exclusive property of private industry. This very feature is already triggering-off a whole series of implications that tend to undermine, rather than improve, indigenous farming structures. Then there are problems with the technology itself. Its focus is enormously deep, while at the same time extremely limited. New biotechnologists tend to describe their activities as multidisciplinary. Indeed, progress in the different fields in which this technology is applied is very much based on molecular biologists, geneticists, plant physiologists and scientists from other disciplines working together and integrating their research.

But it seems that this interdisciplinarity stops at the molecular and cellular level. The innovation is achieved with genes, cells and tissues, with the resulting plants or animals being the means to take the invention to the farmer's field. This reductionist approach is far narrower than that of the original biotechnologists who use hundreds of different strategies to obtain a whole range of different goals. One cannot help but wonder how an inserted gene or two would affect the complex integrated systems as developed by Third World farmers. This is not to say that traditional farming practices could not use a helping hand from modern science. They can, and in specific cases urgently need it. Peruvian farmers would very much welcome frost- and disease-tolerant potato varieties. The Sahelians could very well use better drought-tolerant millets, while Filipino upland rice farmers certainly would not mind having improved dry-land rice varieties at their disposal.

Often, though, the problem with some help is that it gets you out of a nasty situation only to cause a more profound one in the long run. The consequences of decades of massive food 'aid' is one example of such help. The problem with the help the new biotechnologies might offer is that it is based on an extremely narrow genetic focus. Just as the 'chemical-fix' resulted in the pesticide treadmill from which agriculture is still suffering the narrow 'genetic-fix' of the new biotechnologies might also create greater problems than it solves. A new variety with resistance to drought or disease can be a real solution at the local level, but only if it fits into the prevailing farming practices, which can differ considerably in different locations. In that context, the isolation and transfer of a specific gene to solve a particular problem, is only the beginning. Other questions are, how the new variety performs in multiple cropping, does it retain traditional 'side' uses, how does it treat the soil, does it fit in the local labour scheme, and many, many more.

The strategy of the new biotechnologist to obtain better pest control, for example, consists basically of three elements. First, there is the typical tissue-culture work to obtain disease free planting material. Secondly, genetic engineering is used to transfer pest and disease resistant genes to crops. Finally, there is the work on 'big-pesticides' that might produce microorganisms that combat pathogens. In Chapter 5 the dangers of uniform tissue-cultures, single gene resistance, and the narrow spectrum of current big-pesticide research have already been pointed out. By comparison, indigenous farmers not only develop indigenous varieties to resist problems with pathogens, but also use rotation techniques, multiple cropping, botanical extracts, green manure, composting, and above all genetic diversity successfully to obtain healthy crops. Table 9.2 gives, in simplified form, some comparison of the different approaches in various areas.

Perhaps more than the science itself, it is the way in which it is being developed and the context within which it is brought to the market, which determine whether the new biotechnologies will strengthen, rather than destroy, sustainable agricultural practices. The recent history of technological change in Third World agriculture does not give too much hope. The Green Revolution's monocultural mind might have been responsible for spectacular increases in productivity of specific crops, but at the same time it undermined the basis of the productive system itself. This is largely due to the 'top-down' approach to science and development. The donors set the agenda, the IARCs developed the technology, regional and national research institutes worked on it, after which armies of agriculture extension workers tried to persuade farmers to make use of it.


Table 9.2 Sustainable agriculture: farmers and biotech approacbes

Although some of the research institutions are now trying to work more with farmers and their local organizations, the overall approach is predominantly unchanged. With the privatization of biotechnology putting the IARCs in the uncomfortable position of having to negotiate access to the technology in deals with TNCs, which can influence what it is used for, reorientation of the top-down approach seems difficult. The same might be said of those national biotechnology programmes that tend to focus on cash crops, export commodities and large-scale plantations, while at the same time ignoring local food production systems.

In trying to answer the question of how the new biotechnologies could benefit the rural poor, perhaps a useful start is to point to all the work that is not being done. Simple mass selection to improve local varieties is one example of under-supported research. Work on enhancing multiple cropping and rotation techniques, rationalization of the use of wild plants in local diets and the upgrading of traditional crop protection practices, are just a few others. With highly promising technical solutions being heralded at every possible occasion, the focus is often blurred. Yes, the new biotechnologies have something to offer, but so have small farmers themselves. Research oriented towards reinforcing the solid foundations of agricultural systems which have been developed for millennia is highly sporadic and seriously under-funded. At the same time, research on the quicker shortterm and high-tech panaceas, which often result in the undermining of those foundations in the long-term, attract the imagination - and most of the money. Part of the reason is reductionist science itself. Incapable of grasping the immense complexity of entirety it turns its focus on minute parts of it, while still claiming solutions for the whole. Another reason, without doubt, is that money tends to go to places where it multiplies fast, which is often not in the fields of indigenous farmers. Be it a cause or a consequence, the farmer who is meant to benefit ends up being a target rather than a source.